The figures scurrying away through the north London backstreets were bent in frustration, faces tight with disappointment, but there was so much satisfaction to be taken from Tottenham’s excellent performance against Aston Villa. We dominated a pulsating match throughout with a display of sustained good football and earned more than the scant reward of a point.
This was first and foremost a team effort of the highest quality. By the end, wave upon wave of attacks were smashing against the redoubtable Villa defensive barrier to no avail. The stands were contorted in the twisted pleasure of desperate anxiety and anticipation as Spurs craved the goal their performance richly deserved.
If our last evening game was dull monochrome then this was vivid technicolour. From the very start, every Tottenham player appeared pin-sharp, each bead of sweat on their forehead precisely delineated as were their expressions of determined intensity. In my preview I asked for effort from the first whistle, taking the Leeds game as our template, and Spurs rose marvellously to the challenge, maintaining that application and tempo throughout, apart from ten minutes or so near the beginning of the second half when Villa threatened to break out, but we quickly closed down their escape route and reasserted our clear superiority until the gut-churningly frustrating end.
Straight away we settled into a purposeful rhythm. Modric was the pick early on, drifting inside to both get on the ball and be available as the extra man. He could spot the spaces in front of him but remained largely invisible to the Villa midfield. They repeatedly failed to mark him but sadly he failed to put in a clean strike. He looks so frail at moments like these, a forlorn little figure exposed under the glare of the lights. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brought up in a hard Croatian league that by all accounts resembles England in the seventies, he’s more than capable of handling himself and his stamina lasted for the whole game. Those were precious early chances, however, not by any means straightforward but well within his grasp, and you yearned for a shot as firm and well-directed as his winner against Chelsea last season.
Modric’s positioning also illustrated the growing faith Redknapp has in Gareth Bale. Young is always a threat, yet Redknapp felt that Bale could cope without a constant protector in front of him, although Palacios was always willing to lend a a hand, to the full-back and indeed to any team-mate who was under pressure. Bale responded with yet another performance of skill, diligence and maturity. Young beat him once, but the Villa man can do that with any full-back one on one. He was kept really quiet, to the point where if Redknapp is still interested in him, as is rumoured, then you began to seriously question his judgement. When Bale joins the attack, his timing is praiseworthy, another sign of that maturity that belies his inexperience. He doesn’t rush forward but waits for the moment then strikes, either cutting inside or hitting the byline. A fabulous young prospect.
The crowd were chanting ‘boring boring Villa’ by now, I assume a reference to Wenger’s comments a few weeks ago. I say ‘assume’ because I saw only a headline – I’m not interested in the post-match whinging of any hard-done by manager, including ours and certainly not Wenger. However, surely this is the first time ever that White Hart lane has in full voice endorsed the views of an Arsenal manager. And i was there, kids.
In fact at this point in the game, still in the first half, our opponents were sending healthy numbers forward. Heskey limped off (I momentarily had a rather sick vision of he and Ledley, two determined knackered warhorses, trudging off together) but Carew is always a handful, and Agbonlahor, as I suspected, loitered with intent around Dawson and Corluka hoping to exploit their lack of pace. The best way to prevent the danger is of course to not allow him the ball in the first place and for the most part he was very quiet. To his speed he’s added the ability to turn and shoot, but this allowed Ledley to assert his mastery. As the Villa man got away, Ledley snapped in the tackle. Those who say he’s finished are so wrong.
Villa were not boring, they were out-played. Unable to cope with our passing and movement, they were progressively forced further and further back until by the end the heels of their back four scraped against the Paxton stand. In their box they defended admirably well, again as sadly I predicted in my preview, but we too had bodies on hand to block any danger at our end.
The pattern of smooth passing was imprinted on the game. My repeated concerns this season about our capacity to support the man on the ball and to retain possession were banished, hopefully for good. Relaxed and apparently effortlessly we probed and prompted. Bale, Corluka and Bentley were always available to provide width. Modric passed the ball well but could have worked harder in the second half to become consistently involved.
Crouch won everything in what was his best Spurs performance so far. He worked hard to be constantly available, regularly found a team-mate with his lay-offs and kept the ball moving rather than holding on to it. Still, there were those ‘if onlys’ with his headed chances.
Another word of praise for Palacios with his finest outing for ages. Just what we need from a defensive midfielder, biting the tackle, high workrate and clever positioning, covering for defenders when they went forward and not going up if we had too many already committed.
But my top man (‘TOMM’s Top Talent’, hmm, it has a ring to it….hollow that is..) was big Tommy Huddlestone. He quickly adjusted to the shape of the play. Shorter quicker passes suited him and deprived by Villa’s deep defending of the opportunity to pass long, he was all the more effective. Not everything worked but he did not shirk his duties, a sign of maturity. He made himself constantly available and took responsibility to drive us on from midfield.
Finally on the individuals, Gomes once more when called upon was absolutely impeccable. Just love that man.
So arguably the best display of the season but only one point. What went wrong? Reflections on this at greater length in the week but a few thoughts for now, in no particular order.
There’s no one single problem that is preventing us from scoring a hatful of goals. Some are down to our opponents: yesterday, by defending deep Villa ran the risk of allowing us on to them but it closed off the possibilities of long passing into channels and over the top, by Hud and others, and made it hard to reach the byline. There’s no room behind the back four so the long ball is swept up by the keeper or centre halves, as are headed flick-ons from Crouch, and JD’s pace is taken right out the equation. Crouch played very well but at the highest level, and that’s where Villa’s defence is, those bobbly looping touches are easier (not easy, but easier) to handle than passes into channels, low crosses and movement.
Also, our midfield strikes a pose and a few decent long shots, but again a long shot is, percentage wise, easier to deal with than an effort from closer in from midfielders arriving late and unseen in the box. We don’t do enough of the latter.
JD is not quite as sharp as we have seen him, wanting that extra touch, and for some reason he and most everyone else is shooting unerringly and uncannily straight. Opposition keepers look forward to their MOM awards against us. Of course we currently are without the precious alternative of Lennon’s speed and ability to either occupy several defenders at once or leave one or two on the seat of their shorts.
Finally, teams have got wise to us. They are not bothering to play an expansive game and cluster round their own goals. And it works.